Larry LaBute's Wheelchair Accessible Lincoln Zephyr and Bentley Mk VI Restomods

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
larry labute s wheelchair accessible lincoln zephyr and bentley mk vi restomods

The next time you believe that an unfortunate circumstance means that you can’t achieve a dream or take part in an activity you love, take a moment to think about Larry LaBute and then go ahead and live out those dreams.

I’m not sure how he became disabled — LaBute is paraplegic — but that hasn’t stopped the retired hydroponic tomato farmer of Leamington, Ontario from building, and driving, the cars that he loves.

He can drive with hand controls but LaBute’s use of his hands is limited. So, while he conceived of and directed the restoration and modification of his special interest automobiles, he obviously could not do very much of the physical labor involved in the projects.

I’m sympathetic with the “built, not bought” school of car customization, and understand why some might disparage what some call checkbook hot rods, but the fact that LaBute hasn’t done very much of the actual labor on his 1938 Lincoln Zephyr convertible and 1950 Bentley Mk VI lightweight saloon by H. J. Mulliner doesn’t take even the smallest bit away from his achievements.

Though the cars look normal when driving down the road, that belies rather extensive reengineering LaBute did to allow him to drive them. The hydraulically actuated lift that positions his wheelchair behind the cradle and hand grips that replace the accelerator, brake pedal and conventional steering wheel are only the most obvious alterations. LaBute didn’t just add a ramp and hand controls.

A wheelchair takes up more space than a typical car seat and it also has a seating position that is much higher off of the ground. To accommodate a wheelchair’s width and height, LaBute needed a lower, wider floorpan. That meant eliminating the tunnel for the driveshaft. The lower floors also mean that the Zephyr’s unibody and the Bentley’s frame had to be modified while still retaining structural integrity.

If there’s no room for the driveshafts, how are LaBute’s cars propelled? He converted them to front wheel drive using mostly General Motors components. I’m not sure of the exact small block Chevy motor in the Lincoln, but in the Bentley, a LT1 V-8 from a Corvette drives a transaxle sourced from an Oldsmobile Toronado, which in turn puts power to a front end sourced from a 4X4 Chevy Blazer.

As the vehicles have modern drivetrains, I suppose you could call them restomods, but keeping the cars looking conventional on the outside was important to LaBute. The Zephyr four door came with suicide rear doors, which allowed for an expansive opening and room for the lift. The Bentley doesn’t have a rear hinged door, so Larry did something very clever instead. He welded both driver’s side doors together to create one large door, which hydraulically slides open parallel to the car’s side, like an RV slide-out, providing enough space to back a wheelchair onto the lift platform.

If that wasn’t enough work to do, the Bentley was built for the British market, complete with right-hand drive, so LaBute also had to move the driver’s position to the left side.

Perhaps the niftiest thing about the conversions is that from the outside, when the cars are on the road, they appear to be stock (or more accurately, in the case of the Zephyr, a normal hot rod). As for the quality of the restoration side of the restomods, the Bentley didn’t look out of place at the 2015 edition of the Concours of America at St. John’s, the Detroit area’s premier collector car event and one of the top shows in America.

Coincidentally, I happened to see both of Larry LaBute’s hand controlled classic cars within a few days of each other. He’s been driving and showing the Zephyr for almost 20 years, but LaBute’s Bentley Mk VI was only recently completed. He gave it its first major public showing at the Concours.

While admiring the Bentley at that show, I happened to mention to a nearby gentleman that I’d seen a similarly converted car at the recent Ford Product Development Center employees’ car show. I remembered it because I was able to shoot video of LaBute demonstrating the Zephyr’s lift to another wheelchair user at that show. The gentleman turned out to be LaBute’s son, also named Larry, who told me that the Lincoln was also his father’s.

Every year, the Concours of America has a small number of cars on display that are there not because they fit one of the judged classes but rather because they’re deserving of special notice individually. It’s an honor often given to vehicles of particular historical significance.

This year, the Lane Museum’s Dymaxion Car replica that we featured here recently, Edsel Ford’s personal Brewster Ford, and Larry and Lynne LaBute’s Bentley Mk VI were on Individual Display. I have to believe that the organizers wanted to honor Mr. LaBute’s exemplary enthusiasm as much as his very impressive car.

Photos by the author. You can see the full photo galleries at Cars in Depth. I don’t often say this, but you have to see the Bentley’s driver’s side doors in 3D to fully appreciate them.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 5 comments
  • Toad Toad on Oct 07, 2015

    That is some impressive engineering and creative design work. Mr. LaBute deserves a lot of credit for making it happen and showing others what is possible. I have to wonder what the cost of those mods were. Probably more than my house.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Oct 22, 2015

    Agreed, part of being a "checkbook modder" involves not having your heart in the right place, and clearly Mr. LaBute's is in the right place.

  • Lou_BC I realized it wasn't EV's burning by the absence of the usual suspects.
  • Kwik_Shift A manual bug eye WRX wagon (2001-03) would interest me more.
  • El scotto Ferrari develops a way to put a virtual car in real time traffic? Will it be multiple virtual players in a possible infinite number of real drivers in real time situations?This will be one of the greatest things ever or a niche video game.
  • El scotto It's said that many military regulations are written in blood. Every ship's wheel or aircraft joystick has a human hand on it at all times when a ship or aircraft are under power. Tanks, APC's and other ground vehicles probably operate under the same rules. Even with those regulations accidents still happen. There is no such thing as an unmanned autopilot, ever. Someone has to be on the stick at all times.I do not think MB understands what a sue-happy nation the USA is. The 1st leased MB in a wreck while this Type 3 "Semi-Autonomous" driving, or whatever it is called, will result in an automatic lawsuit. Expect a class action lawsuit after the 1st personal lawsuit is filed. Yes, new MB owners can afford and ever are lawyers.Mercedes Benz; "The best wrecks or nothing!" Oh and has anyone noticed that Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura, the gray suit with white shirt and striped tie, automobile companies have stayed away from any autonomous driving nonsense?
  • Merc190 Very streamlined but not distinctive enough for a Mercedes. And besides, the streetcar of the early 20th century seems a far more efficient and effective method of people moving in essentially an autonomous manner. A motor car is meant to be driven with proper attention to what's important in every situation. To design it otherwise is idiotic and contradictory.